Here Comes the Farm Labor Organizing Committee

Here Comes the Farm Labor Organizing Committee

Vol. 20, No. 4, 1998 pp. 24-26

Baldemar Velasquez founded and currently serves as president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. In August 1998, Velasquez was interviewed at the Southern Regional Council. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), a union of migrant and seasonal farmworkers, was founded in l967 by Baldemar Velasquez. Concentrating most of its work in the Midwestern states of Ohio and Michigan, FLOC negotiated contracts in the tomato and cucumber industries with Campbell’s Soup, Vlasic, Heinz, Green Bay, and Aunt Jane companies. The more than 7,000 workers represented by FLOC now receive minimum wage earnings, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, and social security benefits. FLOC is extending its efforts to North Carolina cucumber workers.

In the breakthroughs that we have had in the North, we have come to realize some fundamental things about the structure of the agricultural industry and, particularly, the contracting and subcontracting arrangements that these international food companies employ-basically it’s the old system of sharecropping. It is used as a technical way to get around the Fair Labor Standards Act and the minimum protections that workers are supposed to enjoy.

One example is the Vlasic Pickle Company, a multinational buyer of cucumbers. They contract with local companies, which are essentially grading stations. The grading stations grade the cucumbers by their sizes and contract with the growers-family farmers-contracting anywhere from twenty to one hundred acres of cucumbers. Each one of those growers employs about one worker per acre. So you have the food company, you have a local grading operation, you have the small family farmer, and then you have the worker. You have two parties between the top decision maker that sets the parameters, and the workers on the bottom who harvest the cucumbers.

Since the sharecroppers are categorized as independent contractors, this arrangement saves the industry 15 to 20 percent of the production costs-the employers’ share of social security, workers’ compensation, and unemployment compensation. Of course, this hurts workers by burdening them with both the employer’s and the employee’s share of social security. Workers pay this out of their meager earnings-a fifty-fifty split of the value of anything they harvest.

The workers harvest three sizes of cucumbers: ones, twos, and threes. The ones are the smallest and the most valuable-because they will fit into glass jars. Before we signed our first agreement in Ohio, the ones were running about fourteen to fifteen dollars per hundred pounds. The worker got half and the farmer got half. Seven or $7.50 for every hundred pounds of those little pickles represents a considerable amount of work for a small amount of money with which workers have to pay a self-employed share of social security.

Starting at the Top

In our northern campaign, we organized the workers on farms according to the particular grading stations they were contracted to, keeping in mind which stations sold to which company. We then demanded negotiations, not with the farmer and not with the local company that bought the cucumbers, but with the multinational food processor that eventually purchased and sold the cucumbers.

One of our first demands was that these multinational companies order their farmers and their local companies to the negotiating table. They did that, allowing us to conduct multi-party, collective bargaining sessions which culminated in an agreement signed by all of the parties.

That breakthrough was significant because we understood that in order for us to truly change the conditions on the farms, there had to be changes in the structure of the operations.

Through this process, we have eliminated the whole sharecropping arrangement in Ohio and Michigan, converted all the workers to employees on an industry-wide scale, not just at one company-not just Vlasic Pickle, not just Aunt Jane, not just Green Bay Foods-but all of them, simultaneously. When we got them all in a basic labor

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agreement, we told them that, by 1993, all workers, on all farms, with all companies, and all farms contracted to all companies will convert their workers to employee status, winning social security, workers’ compensation, and unemployment compensation for the first time. Requiring all companies to agree to this was a very strategic thing to do. If we had only asked Vlasic Pickles to do this and not asked their competitors to do it, then in a few short years Vlasic would have bought its pickles outside of Ohio.

Holding Companies Responsible

We got Vlasic, Heinz, and Dean Foods to pay for the transition so that it would not come out of the farmers’ pockets. The farmers in Ohio, the ones who actually grow the cucumbers, the tomatoes, and other crops, are small family farmers. To us they are big, but to the rest of the country they are small. A farm with five hundred to fifteen hundred acres of corn, wheat, soybeans, and fresh vegetable crops, in our eyes, has a pretty good-sized operation. They are also very important to us because they are the farms that we come to work on. In order for us to preserve our jobs, we have to preserve the operations on the farm. It was important, therefore, for us to get the companies to pay for these transitions.

That is why it is so important for us to have culminated in these historic multi-party, collective bargaining agreements, compelling the multi-national food companies to pay some of the costs of the structural changes. That was the first step. The second step, since we had a financial body to negotiate with, was to start adding some traditional wage demands for the workers from the industry.

If we had attempted that with the farmers, we would have achieved nothing. We would have been negotiating with a low ceiling, determining how much we could win. For instance, we’ve gotten the companies to renovate the labor camps. Instead of the one room shanties for entire families, we’ve got multi-bedroom units, almost like apartments, with self-contained showers and cooking facilities as opposed to the common-use facilities.

This has been a blessing in disguise for a lot of the food companies and the growers because productivity has gone through the roof. In one study done over a three-year period, on the twenty-three farms that were contracted to the Heinz Company in the cucumber operation, productivity went up, on average, 45 percent. That was more than enough to offset some of these increased costs for the labor agreement and wages. We have also managed to increase the wages over 100 percent in these last ten years in Ohio. That price of number one cucumbers has gone up from fourteen or fifteen dollars per hundred pounds to twenty-five and twenty-six dollars in Ohio and Michigan.

Moving to the South and Beyond…

But this creates a problem for us because-and this is where the South ties in–these food companies not only buy cucumbers in Ohio, they buy cucumbers in North Carolina as well. The same companies–Dean Foods, Vlasic–and you have a new player in the South, the Mt. Olive Pickle Company. Mt. Olive is the second largest pickle company in the United States. Since we have negotiating relationships with Dean Foods and Vlasic, we are going to pick on their competitor in the South as our first target. In order for us to create these same changes in the South, Mt. Olive needs to be a player. We can’t ask Dean Foods and Vlasic to do something that their main competitor won’t do.

This is the second step in a broader campaign that we see stretching down into Guanajuato and Michoacon, Mexico. The same companies buy cucumbers there. They use the same structure this contracting, subcontracting style-but this multi-party collective bargaining arrangement is a vehicle to offset the way they would play us off against each other and the way they would keep us from truly creating some change for workers.

The agricultural industry is wealthy enough to provide subsistence and a standard of living so that a family can feed, educate, and clothe its own. All we want is a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and we’re not getting it.

The reason for us to move into the South is that, in Ohio, to preserve what we have gained we have to lift up the conditions of our counterparts in the pickle industry in the Carolinas.

Redefining Worker Communities

As we bring our campaign to the South, we have to determine a way to organize workers in a systematic way so that we can hold the appropriate people accountable for the conditions and have them pay for the changes. The workers aren’t considered sharecroppers in North Carolina, but they are still paid piece rates. The farmers pay a labor contractor who pays the workers in cash. That takes the responsibility of worrying about deductions off the farmers who can claim that the labor contractor is the employer.

Who are these workers? They are Mexicans, Guatemalans. They scout around to see what jobs are here–

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poultry, hog processing, and construction. About 50 percent of the workers that we represent under union agreements in Ohio and Michigan are undocumented workers. Since the same workers are working in tobacco harvesting and sweet potatoes we know that if you organize cucumber workers you can extend your organization into other crops.

This is the way we organized the fresh market tomato crop in Ohio. We first organized a labor-intensive crop like cucumbers. But since those same workers stay over to harvest the fresh market tomatoes and work in the packing sheds after the harvest, they began to say, ‘Well, why don’t we get this under contract also?” Last year, we were able, in just one month, to organize the entire fresh market tomato crop in Ohio. It was eight hundred or nine hundred workers, two packing sheds, and seven or eight big tomato farms.

If we organize the cucumber workers in North Carolina, we will have the labor force in a basic, organized unit to begin to demand recognition in tobacco and sweet potatoes, the crops that sandwich the pickle crop. If we don’t organize North Carolina, the companies will begin to contract more acreage in the South instead of Ohio and Michigan. If they have to pay four or five times higher prices to harvest the cucumbers, they will buy more and more of their crops from North Carolina. If we organize North Carolina and bring those standards up, we’ll have an equal and competitive field. Some of the biggest supporters we have in Ohio are now the family farmers who used to arrest us and throw us in jail. Now they are saying, “Yeah, go down there and organize North Carolina.”

Unions have to get smart and start redefining who their communities are.Our communities aren’t just a few counties in northwest Ohio. Our communities are any workers who harvest cucumbers for the Mt. Olive Pickle Company, for the Vlasic Pickle Company; wherever they buy them, that’s our community. We are all workers in the same industry. We are, more and more, citizens of these multinational corporations than we are the nations in which we are born.

Immediate Steps in North Carolina

Our North Carolina office is in Faison, the Mt. Olive region. Most of their market is in the Deep South so we are planning simultaneous boycott actions in twenty Southern cities to begin on March 17, 1999. We are looking to connect with groups all over the South to make the Mt. Olive boycott a main focus of activism. We need to popularize it to keep it in the forefront.

We will do actions with workers. We can do strikes. But in Ohio, we learned that workers’ actions must be done in a way that doesn’t hurt workers. Our efforts require a lot of networking, a lot of collaboration with people, a lot of work outside of the fields to make these companies responsible.

Perhaps this is going to open up another aspect to the voting rights, civil rights, and justice struggle in the South. Thousands upon thousands of workers are here illegally, but employers want them to be here. If they were deported, it would shutdown much of the agricultural economy in the South.

As these workers organize, as they vote and participate in decision-making, they will change the way things are done and broaden the base of democracy.

For more information about FLOC’s work in North Carolina and the Mt. Olive boycott, contact Baldemar Velasquez or Mike Ferner at FLOC, 1221 Broadway, Toledo, Ohio 43609; telephone: (419) 243-3456, or Ramiro Sarabia at FLOC’s North Carolina office at: (910) 267-1637.